Mali - Michigan State University

Her Name is Awa
A. Allan Schmid
25 March 1992, Bamako, Mali
There is a little six-year-old girl in the middle of West Africa with our picture pinned over her
heart, and she is surely into mine. I met her and her father as I entered the village of Songorila. There was
this bright-eyed little girl in a blue dress, with the photo I sent via Plan International pinned on her dress.
She was frightened of all the commotion and the tall strange-looking fellow before her. She had her feet
braced in front of her as her father pushed her forward to greet and hand me a decorated gourd rattle.
I was driven to the village accompanied by a driver and guide from Plan International. I became a
contributor to this childcare and community development organization when I learned of their work on a
previous trip to Mali for Michigan State University's Food Security Project. Daouda Diakite, my guide,
studied computers in China and spent some time in New Zealand!
After beaucoup bumps and humps we approach the village and see six men under a tree dressed in
black tunics decorated with animal teeth and other talismans and carrying fly whisks and several ancient
shot guns with ragged edged barrels. We get out and I am saluted with a three-gun fusillade and then
accompanied to the village by dozens of people coming out with three drummers. I walk amidst the
pandemonium holding Awa's hand. The villagers begin to clap their hands rhythmically and chant. A
hundred more are gathered around a gigantic tree.
I am told to be seated with our adopted child at my side and a table in front. A six-foot high
manioc plant is tied to the table leg. A woman approaches with a tin of water that is poured into a large
plastic cup and passed round. I faked it, but Awa was thirsty. Then one of the hunters stands and
welcomes us. The hunter proceeds to tell the assemblage who I am and why we are there, which receives
grunts of agreement from the men after each phrase. Then a second repeats the information while
addressing a third who passes it on again. Now I understand why at our workshop in Bamako the chairman
of the meeting summarized each presentation before proceeding to the next speaker. More things appear on
the table before me. One of the hunters deposited a large carving of a hunter with an animal draped over
the shoulders that he had carried in the procession. Next came a calabash of peanuts, and later beans,
sorgo, millet, rice and two ears of corn.
The drums hammered out a pulsing beat and two dancers appeared wearing cowrie shell masks
and waving a branch in each hand. The masks have no mouth or ears so that they can hear and speak no
evil. After one round I was asked to join in. I did my best jitterbug that pleased the crowd no end. An old
woman came out and threw her shawl over my head which I took and shook wildly to the beat to hoots and
Back safely on my chair, I watched the masked dancers again. Turn the chairs back towards the
table for some more speeches including one from me explaining that I was born on a farm and understood
the work of agriculturists--more sympathetic approval is expressed as my remarks were translated into
Bambara. The table was now filled with calabashes when a headless straw-stuffed wild pig topped it off.
A goat is led into the circle and someone brings a chicken. I am asked to hold the chicken and the goat
before they are led off to the slaughter.
I am greeted by Awa's grandfather in front of the two-room rectangular mud brick house of Awa's
father (one room for each of his two wives.) We are seated under the porch roof and a tin of milk is placed
before me. Daouda explains they have boiled it in my honor. Awa is the princess of the day and dips her
spoon in with relish.
Awa and I take a walk around the village. I have gained her trust. Most of the houses are round
with conical thatched roofs with the hard-packed earth neatly swept around them. We inspect the cows and
the covered well built with the help of Plan International.
Then the feast is ready. I am invited inside the house. An enameled pot with bits of goat meat is
put before us. A pail of water is passed round to wash our hands, and we dive in. Well, at least Awa dived
in--this may be the last day of her life to eat with the men and she was going to make the most of it. I was
honored by being given the liver.
The second course is a dishpan of rice. A bowl of peanut sauce is poured over it--goat, chicken
and something else are added on top. The chicken feet were selected right away. People helped each other
divide the larger pieces and the skin that seemed to be in one large piece. I was given a whole thigh and
drumstick. I broke it, and gnawed on the same little bone for the whole time, which I am sure was
appreciated by those outside who got what was left. As each had his fill he washed his hands and left.
Awa was one of the last! The rest of the children outside had been given a dishpan of rice with no meat. I
am told that what meat is available in the village is given to boys and not girls.
After eating, a man elaborately prepares a strong sweet tea. It is boiled in a tiny enameled pot on a
small charcoal brazier. The tea is poured at a height from the pot into shot glasses and then returned to the
pot several more times so that the final product is foamy.
I give one of my guides some money for the drummers and hunters. It will get divided amongst
them according to the traditional communal system of sharing. It is now time to leave these wonderful
people and return to the other world. Au revoir. Awa's father who speaks only Bambara repeated "Pa Pa"
as I shook hands with Awa's grandfather. Her father grinned at me showing his extended front tooth that is
filed narrow at the gum. He said this was the biggest day of his life.
I have had a privileged glance at traditional peasant culture. It is designed for survival in a harsh
environment. Here they are, isolated but with a strong sense of community. To develop, it appears that
they must shed these ways and become Yankee Peddlers--individualistic grabbers of advantage. As they
do it, some will do very much better and some will be left behind. The old man in the capital city of
Bamako I saw sifting through the trash is hungrier than these people and has no group to keep him alive
when he falls, and certainly no grand fete like today's to relieve the monotony and celebrate the continuity
and meaning of friendship and hospitality.
One last squeeze to little Awa's hand. I can hardly write this without emotion welling up in me.
We were royalty for a day, Awa and I. We shall never forget.